When the sheriff’s department arrived at the Ventura (California) Teen Challenge center just before midnight Monday night, the urgency in their voices left little doubt about the seriousness of the situation or the speed at which the wildfire was approaching the center.
The 60 students and staff members, basically with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, quickly loaded into the Teen Challenge vans and made it to safety at a regional emergency shelter. They were later relocated to the Bakersfield Teen Challenge center.
Early the next afternoon, burning embers driven by high winds ignited one of the main buildings of the center and some outbuildings and . . . that’s when what was destined to be a near total and disastrous loss took a miraculous turn.
Don Coley, the chief administrative officer of the nine Southern California Teen Challenge centers, confirms an extraordinary series of events that left him simultaneously grieving loss and experiencing God’s miraculous provision.
It began more than a year ago when SoCal Edison, the regional utility company, asked to lease land at the base of the Teen Challenge property (located on the hillsides above Ventura) to use as a staging and equipment storage area while they worked on a major construction project in the area.
Two months ago, the project finally began and the leased land was loaded with all kinds of equipment and materials.
Rosie Weir, the Ventura Teen Challenge director, has done what she could to protect the center from fire. Her husband, a former fire department captain, and countless volunteers regularly cleared away brush to maintain defensible positions around the center in case of fire. But in this case, with some wind gusts exceeding 50 mph, no structure was safe from wind-born embers.
Yet it was the lease relationship with Edison that proved to be an unexpected God send.
Coley explains that due to the incredible speed at which the fire was moving, firefighters weren’t able to focus on saving structures — their efforts were directed to life-threatening situations. If a structure caught fire, unless lives were at risk, there would be no fire department coming to the rescue.
“But an independent trio of firefighters had been hired to protect the Edison project equipment,” Coley says. “When that crew determined that their position was no longer in danger, one of the men decided to drive up the hill where, for the first time, he saw the Teen Challenge buildings.”
He discovered that one of three main buildings was on fire. The three buildings share a common roof, which offers a covered breezeway between them.
Coley and a colleague were minutes away from the center when they received a strange call from the Southern California Teen Challenge headquarters. They were connected by phone with the firefighter who told them that one of the buildings would be lost but, since he was a private contractor, he needed authorization to try to save the other two.
“We immediately texted our approval,” Coley says, “and when we arrived a few minutes later, the crew was already targeting their hoses on the fire and wetting down the adjacent structure.”
The firefighters were able to contain the blaze to the one structure and saved the other two buildings. In addition, a separate and newly remodeled kitchen and dining room was spared and four vehicles left behind by staff members when they drove the women to safety in Teen Challenge vans, were miraculously not burned.
While watching the building with offices and a women’s dormitory burn while the adjacent buildings remained untouched, Coley says he experienced both loss and a keen awareness of how blessed they were to have the three firefighters on scene just when they needed them.
“The Ventura Teen Challenge center is often called ‘Miracle Mountain’ due to how we were able to obtain this property and how God has used this place to miraculously change lives,” Coley says. “This week, it lived up to its name once again.”
However, for the women who lost all their personal belongings in the fire and for the hundreds if not thousands of individuals and families who have lost — or may still lose — their homes and belongings to the wildfires, Coley asked for continued prayers.
“There are so many who have lost everything, things that can’t be replaced, and we are praying for them,” he says quietly. “We also pray for the memories of our students — that our ladies will not look back on this as a fire that destroyed, but instead have memories of another miracle that occurred here on our mountain.”
Through both word of mouth and social media, believers across the country have rallied with prayers and support. Southern California Teen Challenge Executive Director Ron Brown, expressed his thanks and deep appreciation to all those who have responded so generously with their prayers and encouragement.
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